The Challenge of Civic Religion

Robert Young


Hudson and Corrigan (Religion in America, 5th ed., Macmillan, 111-115) write about what they call a "civil religion." Civil religion is the opposite of church religion. Civic religion is the religion of the republic, and is public. Church religion is personal. The former bonds the nation, the latter rescues from sin.

This civil or civic religion existed in the United States virtually from the initial settlement of our nation, as a way of understanding the God-given destiny of those who established the new nation with religious freedom. The existence of a civil religion explains in part how a nation which separates church and state, favoring no religion or denomination over any other, can continue to have opening prayers for legislative sessions as well as other public reminders of religion, while denying the display of the Ten Commandments and nativity scenes in the public arena. Indeed, as Newbigin (Foolishness to the Greeks, Eerdmans) has observed, the impact of this civic religion has been to remove individual religion from the public arena.

In this article I want to survey briefly the history of religion in our nation, especially the impact of civic religion and the place of the Restoration movement as it developed indigenously. Second, I want to summarize the present impact on the understanding and practice of religion in our nation. Finally, I want to suggest the nature of the challenge before the church given the current situation.

governmentbuildingReligious History in the United States

One of the great challenges to New Testament Christianity and evangelism in our nation is the fluid faith of those who espouse the Christian religion. I affirm that this fluidity is a product of the civic religion which in the early days of our nation failed to or refused to define specifically the Christian faith, and in our current world fails to define religion. David Brooks (New York Times Syndicate) has written of this fluid religion in his observations concerning the religious backgrounds of George W. Bush (Episcopal to Presbyterian to Methodist) and Howard Dean (Catholic to Episcopal to Congregationalist, with children who consider themselves Jewish). Wesley Clark had a Jewish father, was raised Methodist, became a Baptist, converted to Catholicism as an adult, and now attends a Presbyterian church. Indeed, faith-hopping has become the norm. In the United States, it is generally taken for granted that people will find different needs and meanings in the different stages of their faith journey, the answer to which is to participate with different versions of Christianity based on those individual needs or preferences.

Given that the American Restoration Movement is the largest indigenous religious group in North America, one must ask where the Restoration plea fits into the history of our nation and especially against the backdrop of our civic religion. Although the limitations of this article do not allow an extensive survey of the beginnings of the Restoration movement, I affirm that the Restoration began and has until recent years continued as a counter-cultural movement (cf. Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens, Abingdon). The growth of the Restoration movement, even with its various divisions, continued strong so long as the parameters of biblical faith were clearly defined and deemed essential.

The present tendency to blur the shape of New Testament faith is contributing to increased faith fluidity, even among those who were or are members of the New Testament church.

To support this claim, let us go back almost 200 years to the visit by Alexis de Tocqueville to our nation. De Tocqueville was amazed by the deeply religious character of the United States combined with the lack of denominational strife. He observed that Americans don't seem to care if their neighbors hold false versions of the faith. At about the same time as de Tocqueville's visit, the early calls for Restoration were heard. Apathy concerning beliefs is certainly not a description of the initial development of the Restoration effort. In fact, it mattered a great deal whether one's belief system was false or valid. The early years of the Restoration are marked by religious debates and disagreements, with Presbyterians, then with Baptists, and ultimately with almost everyone who disagreed about anything. Unfortunately, even disagreements about minutiae were sufficient to mark another division, even in things not overtly connected to the faith. Despite this unfortunate extreme, one must not lose sight of the fact that the history of the Restoration effort, indigenous to our nation, tended against the shared civic religion in favor of doing exactly what the Bible says. Disagreements about what the Bible says, or worse, knowing but ignoring the Bible message, were sufficient to deny Christian fellowship.

This approach to Christian faith is not consistent with the civic religion which assumes that all differences in the various versions of Christianity are temporary, that distinctions will ultimately fade, because "we are all trying to get to the same place." An "end justifies the means" philosophy finds all ultimately in the embrace of God's grace.

This version of Christianity as a part of our nation's history has meant that the American populace has been more than willing to embrace different denominations on different points at different times in their lives. In fact, the majority of those who claim to be Christians in North America have trouble taking seriously the importance of religious doctrine at all. Brooks quotes historian Henry Steele Commager, "During the 19th century and well in to the 20th, religion prospered while theology slowly went bankrupt."

Impact of Civic Religion

This movement of Christian faith to the private realm, exalting personal preferences and needs over any biblical message, has altered culture, politics, and religion. Brooks lists three outcomes: (1) Americans are tolerant in their belief that all people of good will are on the same side, (2) American versions of faith have tended away from severity toward optimism, positive thinking, good will, and experience over intellect, and (3) American religion and politics are extremely flexible.

Contemporary Challenges Before the Church

All of this presents the church with a renewed challenge as we seek to understand how the gospel is to make a difference in the kind of world in which we live.

First, we must answer the challenge posed concerning the nature of the word of God. Is the Bible an objective revelation of truth which applies to every person, or is it at the mercy of personal needs and hopes? Tolerance may not be an option if what God says matters.This belief in an unchanging message from God is counter-cultural. Christianity has generally existed as a counter-cultural movement, and has thrived most when it was most out of step with the surrounding culture.Biblical truth applies to everyone

Second, if the message matters, the message of the cross cannot be relaxed into a "feel good religion." The competition for attendees (often more than for members) tends to lead us toward worship that feels good, entertains, and encourages, and a sensitivity that tends away from an authoritative revelation from God. Small groups focus on relationships and encouragement and seek to provide personal guidance. Preaching seems out of step with reality, even out of vogue.

Third, the church must know its identity and avoid the siren song that calls us to popularity. Alan Wolfe (The Transformation of American Religion) observe that today evangelical churches are not counter- cultural nor dissenters, but are a part of the mainstream American culture. The counter-cultural voices have largely been stilled and Christian churches have more and more decided to join the culture rather than fight it.


Less clear in the current religious milieu of our nation is the future of non-Christian religions. However, if the experience of the last 200 years is any indication of how powerful a civic religion can be in diminishing denominational differences within the Christian community, one may safely assume that coming years will find the lines between Christianity and non-Christian belief systems blurring into oblivion so that we can tolerantly co-exist, hopefully all end up in the same place, and blissfully develop good-will toward one another as the ultimate aim of religion. In fact, such has already begun to occur among leading Christian thinkers.

We live in a challenging time. Will the New Testament church, and those whose history is in the Restoration go along with this religious "pablum," or will we rise up to continue the battle for the eternal salvation of souls?

I think we're going to need to decide our answer soon.

© 2012 Robert J. Young. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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